Can you name your best friend’s OG hair color? This question might be tougher to answer than you think, because chances are that she dyes, or at least highlights, her hair. In fact, the most recent numbers indicate that 75% of American women color their hair, a number that’s been increasing dramatically over the decades. And while we love the freedom to play around with hair color, we also know that chemicals in hair dye — and other hair salon products — can cause some serious health issues. But don’t worry, you don’t have to give up your color routine to stay safe. In this guide to organic hair salons, we look at the risks you face at the salon, organic hair salon options in major cities, and steps you can take to protect yourself no matter what salon you frequent.
Harmful Chemicals in Hair Dyes
It can take a lot to change the color of someone’s hair, and for decades salons and major companies have turned to harsh chemicals to do the heavy lifting. While the specific formulations vary from product to product, there are a number of particularly harmful chemicals to beware of when you’re coloring your hair:
p-Phenylenediamine (PPD): This is an incredibly commonly used chemical, found in about two-thirds of conventional hair dyes in the U.S. Despite its ubiquity, it’s extremely dangerous — so much so that it’s banned in Germany, France, and Sweden. Rated a 7 out of 10 for toxicity by the EWG, PPD poses serious health risks, including cancer: a 2001 study from University of Southern California found that women who colored their hair once a month with a PPD-containing dye for fifteen years had a 50% higher risk of bladder cancer, while a 2008 study showed a link with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s also the risk of a serious, potentially fatal, allergic reaction (even if you pass a patch test), as well as lung and kidney problems and even rheumatoid arthritis. Um…what? This is terrifying.
Formaldehyde: Yes, the preservative famous for embalming corpses can be found in hair dyes. If that connection wasn’t creepy enough, there’s also the fact that formaldehyde has been linked to cancer and fetal damage in utero. Today, it’s much less common than it used to be, and is usually used in very small quantities these days, but still something to look out for.
Resorcinol: Used to permanently bond the dye to the hair, resorcinol is an incredibly common hair dye ingredient that has been shown to disrupt normal hormone function, elevating testosterone levels — ie, completing throwing your hormones out of whack.
Ammonia: This harsh chemical has long been used to open up the hair cuticle to allow dye to be absorbed. It’s also known to cause respiratory problems and asthma, as well as eye irritation.
Coal tar: Yeesh. This one just sounds bad. This is actually a category of chemicals that are derived from petroleum, and have been known to cause eye injuries and allergic reactions, and are associated with an increased cancer risk. Yet, these chemicals are almost completely unregulated due to an FDA loophole. According to the FDA, they “cannot take action against a coal-tar hair dye, as long as the label includes a special caution statement.” A statement nobody in a salon getting their hair dyed has ever seen or heard of. Sure…that makes sense…
What’s more, due to yet more loopholes, this time in the Toxic Control Substance Act, the FDA has no authority to require that companies test products for safety, meaning that the fact that your favorite salon carries a certain product doesn’t indicate anything about how safe it is.
Other Harmful Chemicals in Hair Products
Unfortunately, even if you don’t color your hair, you’re probably still exposed to some dangerous chemicals at the hair salon. Just consider the fact that studies show salon workers have a higher risk of cancer than the general population, and it’s clear that this is a serious problem.
One particularly dangerous (and popular) salon treatment is the Brazilian Blowout, which contains formaldehyde. What’s worse, the formaldehyde exposure doesn’t end after the treatment: the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair. The chemical exposure from Brazilian Blowouts alone has been known to cause bloody noses, sore throats, rashes, and respiratory infections.
Other chemicals in common hair salon products — gels, sprays, mousses — have been associated with everything from asthma to neurological issues to birth defects to cancer. Here are some of the major culprits to look out for:
Methyl methacrylate: Used in aerosol (spray) hair products, methyl methacrylate is rated an 8-9 out of 10 for risk by the EWG, and is linked to respiratory and immune system issues.
Propylene glycol: Found in everything from styling gels to hairspray to conditioners and shampoos, propylene glycol is also the active ingredient in…antifreeze. Yikes. It’s been shown to cause brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities, and the EPA requires workers to wear protective gloves, clothing, and goggles when working with it.
Hydrofluorocarbons: Commonly found in hairspray, HFC’s can cause symptoms including low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, and even coma!
Ok I get it. How Do I Find Organic Hair Color Salons Near Me?
Luckily, as the wellness movement has gained momentum and consumers become more savvy, some hair salons are opting for more natural, organic approaches that reduce or completely eliminate your exposure to harsh chemicals. To spare you from hours of research or scouring Yelp reviews, we rounded up some great organic hair salon choices in major cities across the country.
Hale Organic Salon: Hale describes itself as “the most environmentally friendly salon in the city,” and with good reason. There’s no ammonia (in anything), completely organic shampoos and conditioners, and a wide selection of vegan products. Aerosol (sprays) are almost never used, and if they are, they’re relegated to a specially ventilated “fume room.”
Swing Organic Hair Salon: Founded with the intention of minimal environmental impact, Swing uses all natural and organic products. It’s also an Organic Color Systems Certified Salon, meaning all of their dyes and coloring products are chosen with a focus on health, environmental impact, and social sustainability.
Le Salon: This “Exclusively Organic” salon uses permanent hair color products that use the maximum amount of certified organic ingredients and the minimum amount of chemicals. They also offer formaldehyde-free smoothing and straightening treatments.
Blow Me Away: A full-service organic hair salon specializing in Japanese scalp revitalization. They offer an exclusive line of products made with 100% certified organic ingredients like essential oils and botanicals.
Organics Beauty Bar: All the colors and dyes here are ammonia- and paraben-free, and 100% organic, as are other services including keratin treatments and perms.
Verina: Voted the Best Green Salon in LA by Angeleno magazine, Verina focuses on using green, sustainable products that offer effective alternatives to the harsh chemicals commonly used in hair treatments.
Edo: They offer Organic Color Systems color, which is ammonia-free and uses natural oils to create rich color and healthy hair.
Ingenious Organic Concept Salon: On a mission to “make green the new black,” this salon brings together holistic professionals who use only the greenest products available on the market today. All coloring is done with Oway color, an organic line made with biodynamic, organic, and fair trade ingredients.
Plum Organic Beauty: Plum focuses on changing the beauty industry for the better by using only the safest, most natural products. They focus on supporting local and global eco-friendly initiatives.
Splendor Salon & Spa: This completely fume- and ammonia-free salon focuses on organic and natural ingredients that protect your health and the environment. Plus, all of their packaging is made using recycled materials!
Mera Natural Hair and Body: This holistic spa offers a wide range of natural beauty treatments, including cosmetic acupuncture, organic microcurrent facials, stress reduction treatments, and natural skin care — but hair care is the major focus. All color and highlight treatments are completely non-toxic and organic.
Organic Roots Eco Salon: All products here are organic, all-natural and non-toxic, with an additional emphasis on sustainable practices like repurposing hair clippings into mats that help clean up oil spills!
Aveda is another great organic product and salon option, with locations all over. They’re a brand name, with a serious commitment to minimizing chemical exposure: 96% of their hair color formula comes from naturally-derived ingredients, things like argan and jojoba oil that naturally moisturize, protect, and boost shine (the other 4% is mostly from petroleum-based minerals, without which the dyes wouldn’t be as effective. Of course we like to strive for 100% natural, but this is a decent compromise!). And if you can’t find an organic salon near you (or just don’t want to switch salons), the next section is for you…
What To Do If You Can’t Find an Organic Hair Salon (or Don’t Want to Switch Salons)
If there’s not an organic hair salon near you, or if you absolutely love your (non-organic) salon and don’t want to switch, don’t worry. There are steps you can take to make your salon experience healthier for both yourself and the environment, without sacrificing the style you’re looking for. Here are a few ways to reduce your exposure to chemicals at the salon:
Bring your own products. If your salon doesn’t stock the organic, non-toxic products you want, you can easily solve that problem by bringing your own! Look for labels that are subject to EU health and safety guidelines, as they have much more vigilant standards than the FDA. Also refer to the EWG’s list of the least toxic hair dyes available today.
Reduce the frequency of your visits. You may not need to be coloring your hair or touching up your roots as frequently as you think. Try to stretch out the time between appointments, and look for natural ways to help your color last longer, like rinsing your hair with apple cider vinegar once a month.
Consider semi-permanent color. The more permanent a color is, the more toxic it tends to be. Give semi-permanent a go! You might just love the way it looks.
Avoid breathing in fumes. When scheduling your appointment, you can try to make sure you’re booked at a time when they won’t be using aerosol cans (most often hair spray) or other fumes on other customers. You can also ask to be seated far away from where the fumes are being emitted, or even bring an air-filtering face mask.
It’s true, the salon can be a scary place, but the good news is that more and more salons are getting on board with natural, non-toxic products. And in the meantime, equipped with the knowledge above (and the product recommendations below!) you’ll be able to ensure that you’re making the safest, healthiest choices — while still having fun with your color